Musicals aren’t my first choice for entertainment, but I’ve enjoyed sing-along performances of My Fair Lady played at the Retrodome, now 3Below, located in San Jose, California. During my 1989 three-month tour of Europe, I spent a week in Salzburg, Austria, where I stayed at a hostel which offered daily Sound of Music tours and then off to their pub for viewings of the film along with wienerschnitzel served fresh and hot. Finally, I adore An American in Paris. We have that final sequence where Gene Kelly dances with Leslie Caron to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and throughout the film here comes that scenery inspired by Dufy, Rousseau, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir. What’s not to love? Even with all this, however, musicals aren’t my go-to when choosing cinema or stage performances.
Now I’m writing about Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), the version starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury (1982). My friend Christopher J. Garcia touts it as the perfect entry into Sondheim’s world. “It’s got many genres happening at once,” he claims. “And it’s kind of horror. But go Lansbury and Hearn, not Bonham-Carter and Depp.”
I trod carefully at first, knowing only that the story stemmed from a penny dreadful from the Victorian era. Then quick research revealed that the story has been evolving since first appearing in serialized form as The String of Pearls (1846-1847), containing the usual gore you’d expect from such tales, and involving Sweeney Todd, a barber and serial murderer who slit the throats of men wanting shaves, but not ones quite that close. Subsequent writers have expanded and changed the story until Christopher Bond embellished upon Sweeney’s personal background for his stage play (1973), adding how he’s actually Benjamin Barker coming back to London after having been transported to Botany Bay for trumped-up crimes. The wicked Judge Turpin — played by Edmund Lyndeck in the version starring Hearn and Lansbury — had raped Barker/Todd’s wife before having him shipped off. Worse, the judge has been raising Todd’s daughter, Johanna — played by Betsy Joslyn — grooming her to become his bride. And then, finally, Sondheim put it to music.
And now through all those permutations, we’ve reached Sondheim’s legendary triumph: a penny dreadful, a splatter-drama fit for the Grand Guignol, a musical — and, thanks to Christopher Bond and Sondheim, a revenge tragedy, like, for example, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.
I confirmed my conclusion about Sweeney Todd being among other things a revenge tragedy by adapting methodology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol. 5 (DSM-5). With this manual, psychiatric practitioners diagnose patients partially based on how many symptomatic criteria an individual meets for any given condition. For example, to diagnose someone with bipolar disorder, a practitioner must determine that five or more out of eight criteria from the DSM-5 for that mental-health situation are met. Let’s see how Sweeney does with criteria that several sources agree define revenge tragedies. WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Spectacle for the Sake of Spectacle
Revenge tragedies explode with gory content, and Sweeney is no exception. Sweeney Todd slices the throats of his victims with much blood oozing to titillate the audience. Then he shoots their remains downstairs to Nellie Lovett who processes them into filling for her meat pies. Blood? Cannibalism? Spectacle for the sake of spectacle? Check.
Villains and Accomplices That Assist the Avenger are Killed
Sweeney’s goal is revenge against Judge Turpin for what he’s done to him, his young wife, and his daughter. His accomplice, Nellie Lovett, dies when Todd hurls her into the pie-baking oven. Her main motive throughout has been obtaining meat for her tasty pies. And in fact, she’s keeping secrets from Todd involving his wife’s true disposition. But despite her motives, she’s working with him, and she dies when Todd murders her after suffering a Greek-tragedy-level emotional shock. Check.
The Supernatural (Often in the Form of a Ghost who Urges the Protagonist to Seek Vengeance)
Memories haunt Todd, and he’s plagued with obsession for vengeance, a metaphorical ghost perhaps since this involves memories? However, the narrative clearly doesn’t include literal ghosts or supernatural occurrences. No check.
A Play Within a Play, or a Dumb Show
With what to catch the conscience of anyone? No check.
Madness or Feigned Madness
Nellie Lovett’s got issues, Sweeney Todd’s got issues, and so does mostly everyone on stage. Great big check.
Benjamin Barker becomes Sweeney Todd so no one would recognize him while he plots his revenge. Check.
Violent Murders, Including Decapitation and Dismemberment
They call him the demon barber for good reason. Check.
With Sondheim, of course, soliloquies become songs. Check.
A Machiavellian Figure
Nellie Lovett’s quite the manipulator, especially when keeping secrets while prodding Sweeney to provide the meat for her yummy pies. Her goals aren’t really political, however. She’s in it for the money but also because she enjoys Todd’s company. Check.
Cannibalism (Thyestean Banquets)
There’s a banquet scene of sorts during which Nellie makes her pies while her sidekick, Tobias Ragg — played by Ken Jennings — serves them to hungry punters who are dining alfresco at picnic tables. Those pies, though. Mm-mmm. Check.
A Fifth and Final Act Where Many Characters are Killed (Multiple Corpses on the
Viewers see quite the dogpile of corpses at the end. It’s not the fifth act per se, but indeed we’ve reached a nasty finale. Check.
Degeneration of a Once-Noble Protagonist
He wasn’t an aristocrat, but Benjamin Barker was a hardworking barber who reportedly loved his wife, doted on his daughter, and lived contentedly. Then Judge Turpin took all that away, releasing the demonic Sweeney Todd upon the world. Check.
In later Jacobean and Caroline Revenge Tragedies, the Protagonist is More often a Villain than a Hero (Though This is Subjective)
Dexter Morgan, the serial killer from the novels by Jeff Lindsay, only preys upon evildoers, so one could argue that he’s an antihero. Sweeney Todd, however, isn’t so picky. Check.
In Later Revenge Tragedies, There is Often More Than One Character Who Seeks Revenge
I’m stretching here, but Pirelli — Todd’s rival barber and a conman, played by Sal Mistretta — does threaten to reveal Todd’s identity to get a cut of his profits, only to find himself bled out and ground for meat pies . . . no, I’ll not pursue that angle. No check.
The Avenger Is Killed
Tobias Ragg handles that for us. Check.
The result? Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street meets twelve out of fifteen criteria for defining revenge tragedies. I never determined how many criteria the musical would have to meet for a “diagnosis” of revenge tragedy, but with all but three criteria fulfilled? Clearly, we have a winner, and a cleverly devised one. I enjoyed Sweeney Todd immensely and look forward to experiencing more of Sondheim’s oeuvre.